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Oliver: Jahi’s parents faced heartbreaking choice

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014 11:44 p.m. CST • Updated: Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014 1:21 p.m. CST

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Do you ever see a news story and ask yourself, “What would I do in that situation?”

In a lot of cases, the answer seems obvious. 

For instance, if my cellphone fell onto the ice of the Chicago River, I wouldn’t go out to get it. Too many people have lost their lives that way, including two people in the past couple of weeks.

On the other hand, there are stories that cause me to wrestle with an answer, forcing me to look at both sides only to find validity in each.

So is the case of California teenager Jahi McMath.

Jahi, 13, went into Children’s Hospital and Research Center Oakland on Dec. 9 for routine surgery to remove her tonsils, adenoids and uvula.

Afterward, bleeding in her throat caused complications that resulted in massive brain damage, according to published reports.

Three days after surgery, Jahi was declared brain dead by doctors, and a death certificate was issued.

Meanwhile, Jahi continued to be on a ventilator.

The family saw Jahi’s heart continuing to beat. They saw breaths they said were her own, pointing to readings on the machinery to which she was hooked. And they saw movements in more than just her toes and fingers. 

Because of those things, the family would not accept that Jahi was dead and sought to have Jahi moved to another facility.

The definition of “brain death,” however, is unambiguous. If there is no brain activity in any part of the brain or in the brain stem, a person is brain dead. There is no chance of recovery.

In this instance, more than one neurologist examined Jahi and came to that same conclusion. She had no brain activity, no blood flow to the brain and no ability to breathe independently, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.

Like a lot of people, the family contends that death occurs only when the heart stops beating.

But if the brain can’t send any signals to the heart to beat, wouldn’t taking her off the ventilator result in that? That’s what doctors say.

Jahi’s family went to court to force the hospital to keep her on a ventilator until she could be moved to another facility.

In the end, they were granted the right to move her to an undisclosed care facility. 

From a medical standpoint, the case does seem clear-cut. But I also can empathize with her parents’ plight.

Shouldn’t a family have some say in what happens to their loved one in the absence of a clear medical directive from the patient herself? 

How heartbreaking for a family to lose a healthy 13-year-old girl as the result of a “routine” surgery. What a heart-wrenching decision for parents to make.

If she is brain dead, Jahi’s body will break down and the family ultimately will have to face that fact, no matter how much they hope for a miracle.

What would I do in this situation?

I pray I never have to find out.

Joan Oliver is the former Northwest Herald assistant news editor. She has been associated with the Northwest Herald since 1990. She can be reached at

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